There are so many Frank Zappas to consider that it’s often a struggle to focus on which one to pinpoint. Is he the man who lovingly crafted intricate and tender guitar solos from “Black Napkins” to “Inca Roads”?
Or the silly ribald humorist of “Titties and Beer” or “Bwana Dik”?
Or the high-minded composer behind “Lumpy Gravy” or “Orchestral Favorites”?
Or the psychedelic rocker and jazz-bo of “Freak Out” and “Hot Rats”?
What one can focus on, twenty five years after his death, is that innovative guitarist / composer / socio-political satirist / free expression activist Zappa is more crucial than ever (especially when you consider that the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer will soon get his own hologram treatment) and by, all accounts is having a busy spring by Philadelphia standards.
There are those who have been playing the exact music of Zappa for ages – some by birthright and others by way of having played with the master himself. While recently-minted Ardmore native Dweezil Zappa plays his dad’s hits (without the benefit of being able to use pop’s name due to rights troubles with his brother Ahmet and sister Moon Unit) April 21 at the Keswick Theater, two of Frank’s best-known sidemen hit the stages of Theater of Living Arts May 13 for a stirring set of Zappa covers. In saying that, however, one should add that the act those sidemen (Napoleon Murphy Brock and Denny Walley) are part of – Project/Object – is 25 years old; the longest, still-running conglomeration of one-time Zappa men (Don Preston and various Grandmothers have done similarly but not with regularity into the present). Neither Brock nor Walley are kidding around when tackling Zappa’s post-Mothers of Invention fare. Both tributes are but a precursor to the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts’ June 2 event at SEI Studio entitled “Inventive Mothers: A Tribute to Frank Zappa” with Vienna’s Studio Dan ensemble.
“Though it doesn’t sound terribly poetic, one of the primary reasons we chose to program Zappa’s music right now is that the parts and scores are more readi available than ever before,” says Jayce Ogren, the Artistic Director of the Philadelphia-based Orchestra 2001 who, this month, present the genre-defying compositions from The Yellow Shark, an album first released the year of Zappa’s passing (April 28 at the Fillmore). Along with that performance Ogren and Orchestra 2001 will pairs Zappa’s chamber pieces with contemporary classical composers most influential to his development such as Varese and Stravinsky (April 22 World Café Live).
“An exploration of Zappa’s music felt timely because of the current arts climate that is in love with (and perhaps preoccupied with) cross-pollination, collaboration and multi-modal work,” says Ogren, of the proto-crossover artist, floating between genres and styles organically, effortlessly and without judgment.” As for his own judgment or decisions while covering Zappa through the voice of his orchestra, Ogren states that he is trying to channel “my inner Zappa, and bring the best of my own personality (and those of our musicians) to the surface. He was an instinctive, genius musician who was able to ‘steal’ (or borrow notes, paraphrasing the great Stravinsky quote) from the very best in order to express his unique set of views and emotions. It will be our unique, Philadelphia, Orchestra 2001 reading of these pieces from The Yellow Shark, and I don’t think any of us will know exactly what that means until we’ve finished the final performance. But without question, it’s going to be one fun and challenging ride. “
In discussing “The Yellow Shark,” Ogren mentions how every player must be a virtuoso, but that it goes way beyond technique to get at the meaning behind the notes—“to find the humor, absurdity, power or poignancy of each moment.”
When it comes to the stark, surrealist inspiration of Zappa in the literal and the figurative, there are few better to speak with than The Residents, the 45-year old avant-grade ensemble who sent its first independently pressed single – 1972’s “Santa Dog” – to Zappa for release on the composer/guitarist’s then-Bizarre record label. “He never responded,” says Homer Flynn, the official spokesman and possible member of the always-anonymous ensemble who’ll play a rare live date in Philadelphia at the Foundry atop The Fillmore on April 26.
“The primary influence that Zappa had on The Residents came from the fact that they a pretty straight middle class suburban background in the South,” says Flynn while driving in a tour bus through Utah. “For them to get outside of top 40 radio, they had to be searching for something dynamic. One of them tells this story of having gone into a record shop in Shreveport – Stan’s Record Shop – and in the cut out bin was Freak Out. That changed his life. He had no idea what to make of it – it did not fit his world of pop music at that time yet he was nonetheless intrigued. That’s Zappa’s allure. He opened the door and The Residents went charging through.”
In mentioning the Bizarre label and the concept of door-opening music, few records – on his label or any in history – is as radical, then and now, as 1969’s Zappa-produced Trout Mask Replica album. Across 28 fragmented songs on 2 LPs, the multi-octave weirdly atonal Beefheart and his Magic Band drove through raw minimalist blues free jazz, musique concrete and garage rock-soul to create one of the most unique experimental sound recordings of all time. “And to think that that – some of the most innovative music ever – came out on a major label at the time, and that these two were considered somewhat mainstream artists for the entirety of their existence,” says Ben Blackwell, the co-founder of Third Man Records.
Blackwell is ever so psyched to discuss Beefheart and Zappa’s purest creation because his label has been in discussion with the Zappa Family Trust – those who hold the rights to Trout Mask Replica and other Bizarre treats – to release their epic as a subscription-only Third Man Vault Package complete with restored album art, re-mastered audio, a first-ever repressing of the French “Pachuco Cadaver” 7″ single, an actual trout mask, tote bag, a silkscreened reproduction of Jack White’s epitaph for Don Van Vliet, and more. Vault subscriptions are live now and are open through April 30.
“There is nothing avant-garde anything that is anywhere near a major label these days,” says Blackwell. “These guys – Zappa in particular – were large underground figures who flirted with mainstream acceptance. Zappa got played on the radio. That to me is impressive and curious.”
Dweezil Zappa plays at The Keswick Theater on Saturday, April 21st; Orchestra 2001 plays World Cafe Live on April 22nd and The Foundry at The Fillmore Philadelphia on April 28th; Project/Object plays The Theater of Living Arts on May 13th. Tickets and more information on all these shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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